Petness
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Petness

Guilt and Shame —

Two reasons why no one talks about behavioural euthanasia

The hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but the only one I could

Two dogs walk along a dike.
Rover with his sister Betty. I thought we’d grow old together. Photo by author.

It’s been six months since I had Rover put down. He was only 16 months old. Despite a perfect start in life and plenty of socialization, training and affection, my beautiful Golden Retriever cross puppy had turned into an unpredictable, aggressive dog.

At first I thought it was teenage hormones when, at eight-and-a-half months of age, he’d start fights with other intact young male dogs.

The solution? Get him fixed. As he was a largish dog, I was planning to wait until he was a year, but because of his troublesome behaviour I had him snipped at nine months so I could nip the problem in the bud, so to speak.

It didn’t help. His aggression got worse, expanding to any dog he didn’t like. He got kicked out of daycare. He attacked two puppies at a dog park. I realized he could never be let off leash or visit any dog park again as there was no way of predicting what dog would trigger him.

Then he started acting aggressively toward people. Like a woman in a yellow jacket. Or a mom with a stroller. Or a man. Just walking by, minding his own business.

“Every time I walked Rover, it felt like I had a grenade at the end of my leash. And he was holding the pin.”

His aggression scared me. And when it came to dogs, there were few, if any, I’d encountered previously that scared me. I was like that guy (you know the one) who says no dog is too much for him. Heck, I’d even dealt with an aggressive dog years prior, when Truman, a stray I’d adopted, started lunging and nipping at people soon after I brought him home. But after a two-hour assessment with a private trainer and practicing the techniques she recommended, he was rehabilitated within a couple of months.

Elderly dog looks out window from his chair.
Truman, a stray dog I adopted, overcame his aggression and became the most loving, kind and gentle dog I’ve ever had. Photo by author.

My point being that in my experience there’s a difference between aggressive behaviour from a dog whose brain is not wired properly and a dog who’s experienced trauma. The latter can be rehabilitated. The former? Managed at best, but no matter how careful one is, management, at some point, will fail. And it did. With my other dog, Betty.

A 23-pound, eight-year-old Boston Terrier/Pug cross, Betty helped me raise Rover. She taught him how to walk nicely on the leash and play appropriately. And yet, he began attacking her.

Betty, my little butterbean. Photo by author.

The first time I blamed myself. It was over a highly valued chew. And he didn’t hurt her as I was a foot away and was able to pull him off before any physical damage was done. But Betty was terrified. She wouldn’t look at or play with him for days. Me, I was still in denial about the potential injury my dog could cause.

In the last week of his life there were three very close calls. In the first, I had him on a 30-foot lead on a sports field, so he could have some freedom. But when he saw a large Rottweiler he’d reacted aggressively to in the past walk by, he charged. The velocity knocked me off my feet, catapulted me into the air and bellyflopped me onto the ground before I was dragged along the wet grass of the field only coming to a stop when he met the end of the leash, which by some miracle was still wrapped around my hand (once around my thumb and twice around my fingers between the joints). I was sore the next day, but disaster had been averted.

I was stressed about Rover, but I’d never given up on a dog in the past, and I’ve had mutts that were handfuls! But after this incident I had a really sick feeling in my gut. You know the kind you get when you finally realize the grim reality of a situation after being entrenched in denial about it?

The second incident was when a tradesperson came to my home to repair an appliance. As the guy tinkered with my dishwasher, Rover became increasingly stressed. I had him sitting beside me on his leash, but if the guy so much as turned toward his tools, Rover would growl and try to lunge. In hindsight I should’ve put him in the garage, but denial is hard to quash.

The final straw came late one evening. I’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, literally 10 feet from my bed where both dogs were. When I returned, not even two minutes later, Betty was cowering and shaking and Rover was stiff and intently staring at her. A split second later he was on her, his jaws latched onto her little body. I grabbed his neck scruff with both hands choking him to get him to release. Even then, it took another 20 minutes to get him to calm down. Betty hadn’t been physically hurt, but that’s when I knew I could no longer leave her unattended with him, not even for a minute.

The next day I had my vet put him down. She said it was likely a neurological condition, citing research indicating that some male dogs can become aggressive in adolescence or early adulthood. It could’ve been from bad breeding, or just bad luck in that his little brain was not wired right. It didn’t appease my guilt, but it did make sense as to why Rover was the way he was.

The danger was gone, but both Betty and I were traumatized. It took me months to get past the intense shame, guilt and grief. He’d never physically harmed a dog, except for a small bite on one of his victims, and I’d put him down. I often second guessed myself, thinking that if my situation had been different, he’d still be here. But I knew he was dangerous, and it was only a matter of time before a dog, or a person was seriously hurt. But that’s me and while not everyone will agree, I believe it was the humane and only choice I could make to keep society safe.

Why not rehome him, or surrender him to a rescue? Do you know anyone who’d take on an aggressive dog, willingly? People have their lives to live and these days folks have got enough problems, let alone a dog who at any moment could bite the mailman. Plus, I didn’t want Rover to end up in another home, only to be surrendered back to a shelter where he would’ve eventually been euthanized anyways.

I’d never heard the term “behavioural euthanasia” before this. Some rescues do it, but they rarely admit to it publicly. It’s a divisive topic in the dog rescue world, so why open themselves up to harassment and abuse. We can’t save every dog. A dog that can snap like Rover would, is not a dog one wants living in our society. It’s just too risky.

I found support through Losing Lulu, a Facebook group created for people who’ve had to make the difficult decision to choose behavioural euthanasia for their pet. Here I was able to share my story and have it met with support, compassion and no judgment.

As for Betty and me, we’re taking the time to heal. My little bug-eyed sassy girl has been my sole canine sidekick these past six months. And while initially — me, who once rescued a 125 lb. stray Great Pyrenees cross with a penchant for chasing bears and bicycles — I was scared of dogs, Betty’s helped me to overcome my anxiety and fear. Will we welcome another fur kid someday? Stay tuned.

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Joan Churchill

Joan Churchill

I’m a marketing copywriter, animal lover, novice vegetable gardener and home decorating enthusiast.